The ruling bluntly tells President Bush he has gone too far arresting civilians as enemy combatants, reports CBS News correspondent Wyatt Andrews.
"To sanction such presidential authority to order the military to seize and indefinitely detain civilians, even if the President calls them 'enemy combatants,' would have disastrous consequences for the constitution — and the country," the court panel said.
The decision has no legal bearing on detainees at Guantanamo, adds Andrews, but it is another hurdle for an adminstration that has yet to try a single enemy combatant. And it will add to demands in Congress to grant Guantanamo prisoners access to U.S. courts.
In the 2-1 decision, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel found that the federal Military Commissions Act doesn't strip Ali al-Marri, a legal U.S. resident, of his constitutional rights to challenge his accusers in court. It ruled the government must release al-Marri from military detention.
"This ruling actually could – emphasis on could – do to the new Military Commissions Act what the Democratically controlled Congress has been thinking about doing for a few months now," says CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen, "which is to change the impact of the law to preclude it from taking away from resident aliens here in this country the right to challenge their detention or confinement in court."
Cohen added that the ruling doesn't mean the suspect will be freed.
"Like former enemy combatant Jose Padilla, al-Marri now likely is to be charged in federal court with various terror related charges and then we'll likely see a replay of the sorts of issues that only now are coming to light at Padilla's trial in Miami, mainly the difficultly in transferring a military case into a civilian one," said Cohen.
The government intends to ask the full 4th Circuit to hear the case, Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said.
"The President has made clear that he intends to use all available tools at his disposal to protect Americans from further al Qaeda attack, including the capture and detention of al Qaeda agents who enter our borders," Boyd said in a statement.
Al-Marri has been held in solitary confinement in the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., since June 2003. The Qatar native has been detained since his December 2001 arrest at his home in Peoria, Ill., where he moved with his wife and five children a day before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to study for a master's degree at Bradley University.
"This is a landmark victory for the rule of law and a defeat for unchecked executive power," al-Marri's lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz, said in a statement. "It affirms the basic constitutional rights of all individuals — citizens and immigrants — in the United States."